Revisiting John Updike

It’s a given that reading is just as important as writing or maybe even more so. I’m always reading something. In the last month I read the first two novels that John Updike wrote about Rabbit Angstrom (Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux).


My intent is to read some well-known and well-regarded books written by people of my generation. Philip Roth is on my list as well. I have no doubt I can learn a thing or two about novel-writing from these books.

I won’t get into a discussion of plot and characters here. I am more interested in Updike’s writing style. The books are long. I bought old paperback editions and the typeface is so tiny I could barely get through five to ten pages at a sitting.

Recently new novelists have been told to vary the length of their chapters and sentences and paragraphs and use a lot a dialogue instead of long narratives. Updike consistently breaks those rules. The two books I read had long, long chapters, paragraphs and sentences and little dialogue. However his narrative is rich with his stream of consciousness impressions and beautiful descriptions of the outside world and the people in it that include the social mores, politics, and current events of the post-World War II times he write about. Race relations, repressed females, graphic sex, tragedy and death, family relations, and the small town-middle class environment are all there. He was a master at creating characters and locations and events that continue to stay with this reader long after I finished the books.

I’ve taken a break from Rabbit for a bit. The Rabbit books originally were a quartet: Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest (the book in which the Rabbit character dies). However, in 2001 Updike wrote a novella called Rabbit Remembered. I promise to read the remaining three this year. They are waiting for me on my to-be-read bookshelf.

Since putting Updike down, I’ve started reading the stunning All the Light We Cannot See, a current best seller by Anthony Doerr. Doerr’s style is the exact opposite of Updike’s. He has very short chapters some only a page or two, and he alternates between his two main characters in almost every chapter. And though his descriptions are like poetry, they are sparse. So are his sentences and paragraphs. It’s amazing how two wonderful writers can have such unique styles.


So I think the lesson for me here is that we writers have different styles as it should be, and maybe it’s not so important to follow the rules.


  1. I found your comparison of two well known authors’ styles quite intriguing, and it has enticed me to read them. I read two of Steinbeck’s novels a while ago and discovered that his writing style and characterization differed considerably between East of Eden and Tobacco Road. I was surprised. Now that I’m working on the completion of my second novel though, I can definitely see how this shift can happen. I used to worry that readers would find quite a difference between my two novels, but if Steinbeck did it, I suppose I can too.

    • Madeline Sharples says

      Kas, thanks for being here. I really think anything goes. I think the rules are meant to be broken. Good luck with your novel.

  2. I found both these authors available as ebook downoads via my library. From what you say, Updike should be easier to read that way, at least in comparison to those old micro-print paperbacks. Not surprisingly, Doerr has a long waiting list. That’s a good sign. No hurry. I appreciate your insights and suggestions.

  3. Mike Allen says

    Hi Madeline, sorry to use this ‘Comments’ space for an off-topic question, but your ‘Contact’ link seems broken. I get an error message ‘Mailing List Not Active. Please notify website owner.’

    I wanted to send a note about a blog of yours from a few years ago re: Kwaj Kids. My father, brother and I are in the two pictures you posted!…

    Again, sorry to take up Comment space.

    • Madeline Sharples says

      Hi, Mike,

      Thanks for the note about my link. I’ve asked my web maintenance guy to take a look.
      Of course I remember you and your family. Your dad and mom and my husband Bob worked together at Kwaj. Hope you are doing well. All best.

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